Imports of medical equipment doubled in the first 11 months of the 2020-21 fiscal year which ended on Thursday as the country faced a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to statistics from Nepal Rastra Bank, the country imported medical equipment worth 15.24 billion rupees in the first 11 months, compared to Rs 8.08 billion in the same period of fiscal year 2019-2020.
The Nepalese imported these items mainly from China and countries other than India, as the medical equipment has become one of the main import items in the country. No significant imports of medical equipment were recorded from India, as it faced its own second wave earlier this year.
The country imported medical equipment worth 6.61 billion rupees from China, with imports of 128% compared to the same period of the previous year. Likewise, imports from third countries also increased by 66.4% to 8.62 billion rupees, according to central bank statistics.
In fact, since the pandemic hit the country in early 2020, imports of medical equipment have started to increase.
In particular, imports from China had jumped by around 104.8% to 2.9 billion rupees in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2019-2020 on an annual basis, while imports from third countries had declined 12.2% to 5.18 billion rupees during the same period, according to the central bank.
Suppliers of medical equipment say the pandemic has primarily fueled the importation of these items over the past year and a half. In particular, the crisis the country faced in the second wave of the pandemic from April fueled the import of medical equipment, the suppliers said.
According to medical product suppliers, the supply of oxygen concentrators, oxygen plants, oxygen cylinders, antigen test kits, oximeters, intensive care units and units high reliance on hospitals, among others, was mainly imported during the second wave of the pandemic.
In addition to commercial supplies of medical products, the country received 4126 oxygen concentrators of different capacities, 6,945 oxygen cylinders, 1.48 million oxygen kits, 13,820 body bags, 218 ventilators among others from various foreign governments and national and international agencies during the period from April 14 to July 4, according to the Ministry of Health services.
Such was the demand that importers who did not use medical products changed direction.
“Not only medical equipment distributors, but also clothing and footwear importers have also imported medical equipment such as oximeters, oxygen concentrators and infrared thermometers (or heat guns) contributing to the strong growth of the supply of these items in the country, ”said Suresh Ghimire, president of the Chemical and Medical Suppliers’ Association Nepal, medical equipment pool.
“Now there is a good stock of medical supplies which can be significant if the country is hit by the potential third wave of the pandemic.”
Nepalese health authorities suspect that the third wave of the pandemic could strike the country during the coming fall season. As part of the preparation, the ministry has asked hospitals to arrange 20 percent of beds for people under the age of 18 who have not been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, several federal, provincial and local government agencies and hospitals began the procurement process to set up or improve medical facilities before the end of the previous fiscal year. Many have struggled to procure the medical products to spend the allocated budget over the past fiscal year.
“With the arrival of more equipment purchased by these agencies, the overall import of medical equipment will be much larger in the future,” Ghimire said.
But of late, according to medical product suppliers, demand for medical products has declined alongside the decline in Covid-19 cases. But, they said available goods or more could be needed if the country is hit by the potential third wave of the pandemic.
“The government itself has announced the construction of several hospitals and the addition of medical facilities in hospitals and the demand for medical equipment will remain good even in the new fiscal year,” said Kumar Dahal, director of Subarna Shristi. Private Limited, a Kathmandu-based medical equipment importer and supplier.
In the current fiscal year budget, the government announced the completion of construction of 5 to 15 bed hospitals in 397 local units over the next two years.
A budget has also been allocated for the construction of a 300-bed infectious disease hospital in the Kathmandu Valley and 50-bed infectious disease hospitals in each province. The federal government has allocated 4 billion rupees to purchase intensive care beds and HDUs, ventilators, test kits, among others, according to the budget provision.
“Even in normal times, the demand for medical equipment has remained stable and the demand will increase alongside the government’s plan to increase medical infrastructure,” Dahal said.
Besides public hospitals, private hospitals are also expected to increase demand for medical equipment. For example, the budget for the current fiscal year made it compulsory for hospitals more than 100 beds to have their own oxygen factories.
Although the supply of medical equipment has increased over the past fiscal year, suppliers have complained about the high freight costs they have been forced to pay.
“Airline tickets and sea freight charges have become very expensive for the delivery of medical products,” Dahal said.
“Most medical equipment falls under the dangerous goods category due to the presence of batteries inside and it has to be carried by certain carriers that overload. To import goods we have to rely on one airline, Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong, which makes things expensive. “
Ocean freight has also become expensive, he said, with ships charging up to $ 5,600 per container, compared to just $ 1,200 per container normally.
“It is therefore also essential that road transport links with China are good,” he added.
While the Tatopani customs point in Sindhupalchowk district remains closed, importation via Rashuwagadi from Rasuwa district has not been smooth since the start of the pandemic last year.